Balloongate: Students rightfully speak out against 40 year tradition

May 11, 2017

2017 marked the 40th annual Purple Feather Day celebration along with its “traditional” balloon release. Over 800 students were honored because of their cumulative GPA of 3.5 or above and were allowed to release a balloon into the atmosphere, regardless of their understanding of its impacts on the environment. 

Opposition to the balloon release began with three seniors: Sammy Roberts, Evangelina Gomez and Brittni McGuire. They attend classes at the Henry Doorly Zoo Academy, one of which includes a community service project. Out of love for their school, they decided to focus on the issue of the Purple Feather Day balloon release and the harm it causes to animals. They learned about the issue of wildlife ingesting the balloon material and the fact that biodegradable latex isn’t much different than what is normally used. They decided to start an anti-balloon release petition that communicated the issues of damage to the property and littering. About two weeks before Purple Feather Day, along with their zoo academy instructor, the girls visited Dr. Bennett and Mrs. Kirksey with an elaborate PowerPoint presentation and the petition which was signed by over 200 students. This forced the seriousness of the situation to be noticed and the switch was made to biodegradable balloons.  

At the assembly before the balloon release, students were told about the issue and it was made clear that taking a balloon was not an obligation. The purpose of the zoo academy students was to encourage people not to release a balloon at all, but most still did after being told in the assembly that Central was choosing a more eco-friendly option.  

Dr. Bennett claimed that there had been minimal opposition to the release in his nine years of Purple Feather Day experience. “We had talked about making some changes with the pep organization who sponsors it, then the issue for whatever reason didn’t come up the following year,” Bennett said. “I wasn’t an expert on releasing balloons, so it wasn’t like I was saying ‘hey, let’s litter’. We’ve always done it, they wanted to do it so we did it and it wasn’t until this year when it came up again.”  

The issue also works into the perception of Central’s tradition. Doing a balloon release for the past 40 years has led students to think that it is unchangeable. “We had questioned it, but down in Lincoln every football game they do a mass balloon release and it seemed like they should kind of outlaw it for everybody,” Bennett said. “We’ve got a few balloons here, we let them off, it didn’t seem like it was that big a deal. You know how Central is, tradition is important here”. Sammy Roberts had a different take on the habits of Central. “The tradition I feel, and so do my classmates, lies in the academics, not the balloon release, so making it more eco-friendly is not changing how academically and behaviorally advanced the students are,” Roberts said.  

The balloon release was also recognized throughout the community through the organization Balloons Blow. Through social media, Balloons Blow recognized Purple Feather Day as a negative impact to the environment and accused the high school of endangering animals. This organization had every right to do that. Not only does the first amendment guarantee their free speech, but there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports their claims to the negative impacts that Central is potentially causing through this mass balloon release. Although there may be even larger releases for other events (such as the football games at Memorial stadium), it does not give Central a free pass to willfully harm the environment. There may be an inconsistency in the claims, but there is a foundation of facts that needs to be recognized by the entirety of the community. 

Small steps are being taken every day in Central to improve the footprint it leaves, such as the enforcement of the recycling program and the addition of LED lightbulbs throughout much of the school. These advances should be recognized along with the faults. Until the balloon release is ended, Central cannot be recognized as a completely environmentally friendly school. 


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